Former prof plans to debut transit system in Duluth

by Nathan Hall

With light rail construction possibly running out of money, alternative and cheaper mass transportation solutions have been gaining popularity.

One such futuristic idea is personal rapid transit.

For many, PRT might look like something out of an old “Jetsons” cartoon. It’s an economy-size, computer-controlled electric vehicle that runs on a single rail. It can fit up to three passengers and operates 24 hours per day on demand.

PRT, which also uses battery power as a backup, is the brainchild of John “Ed” Anderson, a former University mechanical engineering professor and current Taxi 2000 president and CEO.

The University employed Anderson, a former Honeywell employee who holds a doctorate in aeronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for almost 23 years. Afterward, he served as a Boston University aerospace professor before founding Taxi 2000.

Anderson’s current strategy is to debut PRT in Duluth, Minn., but he said he has received interest from Washington, California, New Jersey, Sweden “and even as far away as the far East.”

“Fifteen years ago, the University approached us about PRT,” Anderson said. “The project got killed by the light rail juggernaut, basically.”

In light of the state budget crunch, Anderson said he now plans to finance PRT primarily with private-investor funding rather than approaching the Legislature.

In 1983, the University gave Anderson a $100,000 research grant for patent and trade secret licensing. A stipulation of the grant guarantees the University 10 percent of all PRT profits.

“It is my understanding he left because he wanted to go someplace where he believed there was a chance of implementing a PRT system,” said William Garrard, a University aerospace engineering professor who worked for more than five years on the PRT project with Anderson.

“I think there is no doubt that PRT systems are technically feasible,” Garrard said. “The problems are political.”

The University’s mechanical engineering shop built the chassis for the first PRT module.

“I spent approximately 400 hours fabricating the chassis and assembling all the components to it,” said Robin Russell, a University laboratory machinist.

“It was fun to work on, and I felt like I was making something special that could one day really make a difference,” Russell said. “Guys like me don’t get many opportunities to work on something this special, and I feel privileged to have worked on it.”

PRT officials estimate their 3-foot “guide ways” can handle as many people per hour as a three-lane highway. They estimate that by 2010, a fully functional PRT system in downtown Minneapolis would generate approximately 73,400 trips every weekday. They have described PRT as “quieter than a rolling automobile with its engine turned off.”

Tom Miler, chairman of the

nonprofit Citizens for Personal Rapid Transit, said a somewhat similar system was created in 1973 at the University of West Virginia. That campus circulator system is still in use today.

Miler said he strongly disagrees with the notion of PRT being “selfish” compared to community buses.

“Inserting social engineering into transportation solutions is something that some people may not want to be a part of,” Miler said.

Unlike light rail, PRT requires “low-impact” construction and can be mounted to the sides of commercial buildings.

“I really hope it does work, and I think it can, (and) if it does fail, it will not be because it didn’t work mechanically,” Russell said. “Besides, you have to admit it would be fun to take a deluxe roller coaster to work.”

Taxi 2000’s PRT prototype, which is also being touted as ideal for freight shipping, will be on display at the University’s inventor fair Thursday.

“This meets the needs of people,” Anderson said. “You sometimes spend an hour or more on the bus, but we don’t even have to wait for stoplights.”

Nathan Hall covers the environment and transportation and welcomes comments at [email protected]